Christians have always used symbols to help us understand the faith. We have a long history of beautiful images with significant meanings, and many of us don’t understand them. One of the first articles on our blog was a list of ten classic Christian symbols and their meanings. Each one has a long history and deep meaning for contemporary Christians.
One of the ways the church has passed on the faith is through the stories of the 12 Apostles. Their lives encourage us to live faithfully after Christ’s own example. We imitate them just as they imitated Christ. The church helps us to remember their stories by assigning symbols to each of the disciples, and the symbols remind us about that particular disciple’s life. They are a treasure of the church that helps us learn more about our history. Let’s explore the symbols that the church gave the twelve apostles and see how they help us understand our faith. We discussed six of them in the last post, and now we'll finish up with the second six.
Philip is an important figure throughout the gospels. He may be most famous for his conversation with Nathaniel in the Gospel of John and when he spoke up during the feeding of the 5,000 . When Jesus was teaching people by the sea of Galilee, he saw that they were hungry. He turned to Philip and said, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” Philip responded incredulously, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” When the apostles bring Jesus five barley loaves and two fish, Jesus feeds 5,000 people with them. Bread baskets figure prominently in Philip’s symbol, pointing us to this story.
The Acts of Philip is a traditional source for his life after the gospels and Acts. It describes missionary journeys to Greece, Phrygia, and Syria. He was martyred in the city of Hierapolis after he converted the wife or a proconsul. The enraged proconsul crucified both Philip and Bartholomew. While hanging from the cross, Philip continued to preach, and he so moved the crowd that they took Bartholomew down. When the came to remove Philip from the cross, he insisted that he stay. For this reason, the cross frequently accompanies Philip’s bread baskets in his symbol.
The apostle Thomas is most famous for disbelieving the news that Jesus had risen from the dead. The disciples came to him, and they told him about Jesus. He said, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” Eight days later, Thomas sees the Lord, and he cries, ““My Lord and my God!”
Thomas was also the spokesman for the disciples in the gospel of John. When Jesus went to Judea to raise Lazarus from the dead, Thomas said, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
Tradition has it that Thomas travelled east as far as India to preach the gospel. He founded several churches in the country, and there are some that still claim a history directly from him. He may have travelled almost as far as Chennai, known as Madras at the time. Thomas was martyred in India by stoning and by a spear. His symbol has a spear to symbolize his death, and there is also a carpenter’s square pointing to the churches he founded. Legend even has it that he built a church building himself.
The apostle Simon does not have a prominent role in the New Testament, just like most of the apostles. We know very little about him from the Bible, except that he was a member of the Zealots.
The Zealots fought against Roman rule in Israel, and they wanted to preserve their Jewish religion in the face of Roman hostility. The historian, Josephus, gives us most of our information about the Zealots, though he can be an untrustworthy source. He writes that the Zealots started the rebellion against Rome that lead to the destruction of Jerusalem. The Zealots also committed the abomination that causes desolation that Jesus predicted in the gospels.
Simon, however, would have left the Zealots behind when he followed Jesus. Tradition has it that he travelled with St. Jude, also called Thaddeus, or Labeus, to Persia where both were martyred. His persecutors killed him by cutting him in half with a saw. Others claim he was killed by crucifixion. Basil the Great, however, recalls a different tradition. He claimed that Simon died peacefully in Edessa, Greece. Simon’s symbol is a fish over a Bible showing his faithful mission. He is also frequently represented by a saw.
After Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus and killed himself, the apostles knew that 11 was not enough. The apostles represented a new tribe of Israel and a fulfillment of the twelve sons of Jacob in the Old Testament. The Acts of the Apostles tells us that they gathered the Christian community together to choose one of the witnesses of Jesus’ life and resurrection to join the apostles. The people presented two men, Justus and Matthias, and they cast lots to select which one would ascend to the office, selecting Matthias.
Early Christians, like Eusebius of Caesarea and Clement of Alexandria, believed that Matthias was one of the 72 disciples that Jesus sent during his ministry to preach the gospel and cast out demons.
After Pentecost, Matthias went on missionary journeys like the rest of the disciples. He began his ministry in Judea, like the rest of the apostles. Then he travelled to Cappadocia, a mountain region in present-day Turkey before ending up at the Caspian Sea. There he was martyred by being crucified and cut into pieces. His symbol is a sword or a cross to show how he died.
St. Matthew, also called Levi, begins following Jesus when he worked as a tax collector in Capernaum. Matthew was sitting in a tax booth, also called a customs house, and Jesus said to him, “Follow me.” Jesus immediately went to a house where he ate with tax collectors and sinners. As you probably know, Jews did not like tax collectors, because they worked for the Roman oppressors. They were often corrupt, too, using their position to extort money above what they were owed in taxes.
Tradition believes that Matthew wrote the Gospel of Matthew in the New Testament, which was written with a Hebrew audience in mind. Matthew’s gospel, more than any other, reminds us of the Old Testament roots and prophecies behind Jesus’ mission.
Tradition also suggests varied destinations for Matthew’s missionary journeys after Pentecost. Some say that he travelled west to Ethiopia while others claim his mission was to Persia. He could have, of course, gone to both. We believe that he died a martyr.
One legend about his death has him strung up, upside down, above a fire by Fulvian, the ruler of the Ethiopians. Matthew was unharmed by the fire, so Fulvian added more wood until the flames were very high. He commanded that 12 idols be placed around the fire, but the fire lashed out and burned them. The flames went out when Fulvian asked Matthew to pray for him, and then Matthew died.
Matthew’s symbol are bags of money, representing his profession as a tax collector before Jesus called him.
There you have it. A list of the 12 apostles and their symbols. These symbols are a great way to remind ourselves of the apostles’ witness to the gospel and of their faithful lives.
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